We are just three weeks out from pinnacle event for women’s baseball, an event that only happens every two years. Last time we brought home bronze, and what are people talking about?
The re-entry of “baseball-softball” into the Olympics.
That’s right, hyphenated like an awkward marriage. Baseball for men, and softball for women, have been included in a limited (six) team format for the 2020 Olympics.
In 2012 the International Olympic Committee “recommended” to the international federations for baseball and softball that if they wanted to be considered for re-inclusion in the Olympic Games the two organisations needed to merge and provide a joint bid. For better or worse, the federations took the advice and became the joint World Baseball Softball Confederation.
The position is a stark contrast to the acknowledgement and excitement of the “Womens’ Games” as the 2012 Olympics were known. The Women’s Games celebrated the inclusion for the first time ever of a women’s discipline in every sport. And a female athlete on every team.
These were hugely significant firsts in the recognition of women’s rights. And yet, at the same time, two federations were saying, "Well actually, men play baseball, women play softball.”
The good news for fans of either sport is that the inclusion of softball-baseball beat bowling, squash and wushu.
The practical person might say that given there is only one spot, it's better to join forces and secure a foot in the door. Maybe the events can expand later. Really? Really?
I can’t speak for men’s softball, but one of the arguments I hear against women’s baseball being in the Olympics is the small number of countries where women are playing baseball competitively and the standard of the athletes and the game.
Well I’m sorry, but whoever heard of Women’s Rugby 7s until it was announced in the Olympics? If quality of players and the standard of the game is the issue, how about putting more support behind women’s baseball?
There is no doubt that the best players in women’s baseball are legitimately elite athletes. The fact that many of these women compete with and against men in domestic competitions says a lot of their ability. But it is also true that the quality and depth drops away very quickly. What this really reflects is the lack of support for women to play baseball, not a lack of desire, talent or skill.
Baseball is one of the few sports where women can and do compete directly against men. Junior baseball everywhere sees smatterings of girls doing their gender proud, not only competing with the boys, but holding their own physically up until about age 15. After that the numbers drop but there are notable inclusions such as Eri Yoshida, the Japanese knuckleballer who played minor league baseball in 2010, at age 16.
Taking the issue of numbers and quality of players out of the picture, there is also a basic human rights issue at play. What softball and baseball are effectively saying (and perhaps even more importantly the IOC) is that “men play baseball, women play softball.” This statement reminds me of some others that used to be common. "Men are doctors, women are nurses." "A woman’s place is in the home." Even in the international boxing federation didn’t get away with their position of “we need women to wear skirts so we can tell them apart from the men.”
The two federations and the IOC are either not recognising the basic right of men and women to choose what they want to play, or they are ignoring it, flying directly in the face of anti-discrimination laws and the IOC’s own charter and setting women’s equality back 100 years.
“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. [...]
“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
The exclusion of women’s baseball and men’s softball from the Olympics is direct discrimination. You cannot, on the one hand, promote the “possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind,” while on the other hand enforce that if you are female, at the Olympics, you cannot play baseball. The inclusion of two single sex sports in the 2020 Olympics, is categorically not engaging that right.
You cannot “encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women,” and at the same time tell young girls and boys that men’s baseball and women’s softball are “more equal” than their counterparts. It reeks of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
While the feminist in me says its wrong, the optimist hopes it will ultimately benefit women’s baseball and softball. Being an Olympic medal chance has big sway with the Australian Sports Commission, and sway equals funding. It’s that simple. Right now Australia is sitting 13th in the world rankings for men’s baseball, and the Aussie Spirit women’s softball team had a disappointing 2016 World Cup, finishing 10th.
The Aussie Spirit are still ranked third in the world but the next World Cup will be the key qualifier. Only six teams will compete in the 2020 Olympics for either sport. So the other “ist “ in me, the pessimist, is thinking that while the two sports might be back on the Olympic roster, Australian supporters of both sports shouldn’t let their hopes get too high.
I hope that both baseball and softball get to the 2020 Olympics. As proud Australians that’s what we should all be hoping for. But I can’t help but feel concerned about the future of women’s baseball, not to mention men’s softball, when all around the world the gender stereotype is being reinforced on the world’s biggest sporting stage.